What’s wrong with conversation? Certainly, communication is important, but action is far more important. Although the nation has been involved in conversations about race, especially since the murder of George Floyd, we have seen too many schools and districts focusing only on the conversation and not on essential changes in behavior. It doesn’t matter, for example, if educators and administrators are suddenly using more sensitive language and express genuine contrition for bias and racism, if they persist in practices and policies that continue to work to the dissaving of black and brown students. Consider just three examples of practices and policies that must change: Gifted and Talented Education (GATE), Advanced Placement (AP) classes, and grading practices. These programs are often as segregated now as they were 50 years ago, with white students in Gifted and Talented programs, enrolled in AP classes, and featured prominently on the honor roll, while black and brown students receive perpetual remediation.
Gifted and Talented Education.
While black and brown students account for more than 40 percent of K-8 students, only 26 percent are enrolled in GATE programs. While there may not be deliberate racism at work, the effect is clear. When selection for gifted programs is based on tests that prefer economically advantaged students and dominant cultural references, then it is little wonder that students who lack exposure from birth to dominant cultural references are not doing well on the tests. Think of it this way, if we asked students in a wealthy suburb to qualify for their GATE programs by taking a test about the game of cricket, they might find the test discriminatory. A 2019 Harvard study found students whose parents earn in the top fifth of wage earners were twice as likely to be chosen for gifted programs than their equally achieving peers whose parents earn in the bottom fifth of wage earners. The study concluded that the access provided by wealth, politics, and privilege allowed parents of wealth to carve out opportunities for their children that were more difficult to access by parents in poverty. There are better ways than testing and parent advocacy for GATE programs. We have seen programs that include a holistic view of the student, including peer and teacher nominations, are less likely to depend upon test scores alone. A Johns Hopkins University study suggested that as many as 20 to 40 percent of students are capable of work beyond their grade level, but only a handful qualify for GATE programs. Perhaps most distressing of all is that the GATE programs strive to provide students with education that is personalized, challenging, and relevant. Don’t all students deserve an education with those characteristics?
Only 8 percent of African American students are enrolled in AP classes, and only 4.3 percent of those students receive a score of 3 or higher – the threshold necessary for college credit. We have seen schools that pride themselves on diversity, and yet it‘s very difficult to find a black or brown face in advanced classes. The excuse for this is that the students just are not capable of meeting the demands of AP work. But there are better responses to that concern than excluding students from these classes. Schools can, for example, follow the model of wealthy independent schools and provide academic support to assist all students to increase the likelihood of success. The on-ramp for AP classes starts early, with students in intermediate and middle school grades selected – or denied – opportunities for the advanced work that will put them on the path to enroll and succeed in AP classes. Thus, part of the solution is to stop the tracking of students before it starts – in grades 5 through 8. The most important part of the solution is to create greater opportunities for success. Schools can create learning support for students, with additional classes during the school day designed to help students succeed and fill in the gaps in essential prior knowledge that many students from low-income lack. While the numbers about under-representation of black and brown students are clear, we remain unimpressed with school leaders who attend equity worships and claim greater awareness of systemic racism, and then return to a school that systematically excludes many students from their AP classes. Rigor is always a good thing, but we must be intentional in providing access, support, and monitoring student progress to make the system more reliable.
The leading causes of student failure before and during the pandemic was missing work. Even students with 90 percent or greater attendance are still failing. Why? Some students go home to a private study space, excellent internet connections, and parents or siblings who help them get work done. Other students go home to two or more families living in a two-bedroom apartment, and parents working double shifts to pay the rent. Two equally capable students will earn high grades in the former environment and low grades in the latter environment. The cause for low grades is not laziness by the students, but a grading system that systematically punishes students based not on student learning but based on the home environment of the students. There are easy solutions for these discriminatory policies, including the provision of support during the day – not after school or weekend school – to get work done, the elimination of the average to calculate final grades, and the elimination of the practice of awarding zeroes on a 100-point scale. These practices are the academic death penalty for too many students, and particularly students from low-income families. It has been long established that black and brown students are disproportionately subject to corporal punishment in the 19 states that, to our national shame, still permit this barbaric practice. But toxic grading practices are little better—we consider them to be academic corporal punishment.
We call on educational leaders and teachers to go beyond conversations about race. Don’t settle for superficial changes in workshops and vocabulary. Symbolic gestures are hollow, lack substance, and over time become insulting to the very people we claim we want to elevate. Don’t settle for posting a Black Lives Matter poster in the principal’s office and school hallways if the school persists in practices that continue to say that black lives matter only in slogans, but not in educational policy and practice. Be courageous and know that your advocacy will make someone’s life more meaningful. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”